Passage: Advent 1 Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
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Can you - imagine - a Christmas tree, turned upside-down? The point would be at the bottom. And then as your eyes rise - from the pointy little base - of this upside-down tree - - the branches would expand to the top - where the traditionally large base would now stretch out overhead. It would look a lot like an upside-down triangle - made of green branches.
Well, for $599 you can purchase - the most high end version of such a tree - according to the Nov. 8 "USA Today" newspaper. The article which reports this - frightening decoration option - also reports that Target sells upside-down trees on its website - for as low as $299. The USA Today article says - that the trees are purely decorative - and the reason - for these trees is to provide more room at the bottom - - - for presents! But at least one person - referred to in the article suspects, "there's something sinister, almost bad, about it".
I must say - I agree. If we ever needed a sign that - we are living in - what some Biblical texts refer to as "The End Times" - - this might qualify as such a sign. Don't you think? I'm kidding - of course. Mostly.
And I don't really - want to stir up a debate about whether these trees - really are signs - of some kind of apocalypse or not. Really - I don't. But I bring them up - because I have been thinking - about apocalypse. Because of the lectionary texts - mostly.
The texts are about watching - and waiting. The New Testament text is about watching. The Old Testament text is about waiting. They are similar - in tone - and both texts refer to a kind of expectation - of an apocalyptic - end times.
It seems to me that there is more - longing - in the Old Testament text.
And more immediacy in the New Testament text.
Let's see what you think. First Isaiah...
[ read Old Testament: Isaiah 64:1-9 ]
Do you hear the longing - for God to be revealed? "O that you would tear the heavens and come down!" A friend of mine once - set this line from Isaiah along side the New Testament Christmas story, saying: "The star of Bethlehem was - just the finger - or the CLAW - of God - - - tearing through - ripping - into our darkness. God had been waiting - as the Scripture says - to tear into our reality.
This Old Testament text - seems to long for God - to tear into things.
And part of that longing - is a longing for God to be revealed.
So - now for the New Testament text:
[ read New Testament: Mark 13:24-37 ]
I think that this text - like the Old Testament one - is about waiting. Even though the word used is "watch" - I think that watching - is a kind of waiting.
But watching and waiting - put me in a very different kind of mood - - from talk about apocalypse - or the end of the world. So I have wondered - what to make of that.
In my wondering, I came across an article by the poet Kathleen Norris, who wrote the book Dakota - among others - and she addressed my wondering, saying this:
"Isaiah's "Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down" is the cry of a people who realize that they've made such a mess of the world - that only God can set it right. And this reflects the truth of personal experience: that it is only after a crisis - - with stars falling from the sky - - and the ground shaking beneath our feet - - that we see clearly - or that we remember what is worth caring about - and what is not."
I can tell you - she is on to something.
And you know it - as well as I do.
What she is on to - I believe - can be summed up like this: What better time of the year to reconsider what is worth caring about - - - and what is not? / The only better time - I can think of - might be after a crisis - that shakes the ground beneath our feet.
Norris goes on - in the article - to talk about apocalypse: "the word apocalypse simply means to reveal, to uncover, and if facing reality brings despair, we need to ask why. Above all, we must reject the literalist notion - that apocalyptic literature is about a future pie in the sky. It is a command - - to come to full attention - in the here and now. And that is hard to do". And sometimes more than others.
Apocalypse - means revelation. / To reveal. Ours is to open our eyes to the revelation. The great preacher - Harry Emerson Fosdick - once described a man - who had trouble opening his eyes. This story - illustrates for me - how difficult that can be. Fosdick rode the train day after day - as a commuter into New York. He noticed that a man - who always caught the same train as he did - would always pull down the window shade - - as the train passed 128th street. Then he would close his eyes.
Having watched this ritual for a while - Fosdick asked him, "I've watched you pull your shade down every morning - and I'm curious about - why?" The other man explained - "I was born in that slum - and it is too painful to be reminded of those early days. Besides - there's nothing I can do - about the pain."
They rode along in silence for a while after that. And after riding in silence for a while, Fosdick said, "I don't mean to poke around in your private life too much - or to tell you what to do about your pain - but maybe - could you start - by leaving the shade up?"
I can tell you - I'm not sure how I would have responded to Fosdick - if I were that man on the train. And I can understand - why he pulled the shade.
And as right as the great preacher's advice might be -
- it's different - when it's your window shade.
Just wait - and watch - as your place of birth - - goes by. Just watch - and open your eyes to - what causes you pain. As I heard the story - I wondered - what Jesus would do. After all - think about where Jesus was born. Would Jesus want - to pull the shade?
Suffice it to say - it is not easy - to keep our eyes open - to reality. And it is not easy to keep our eyes open - to God's revelation. But if Kathleen Norris is right in her article - and I think she is - then it's our calling to - open ourselves to - what is revealed.
And there is another way - I think what she said is right. / It is the focus on NOW.
There's an old joke about a pastor - at church camp - that emphasizes this point for me. The pastor is walking along - and is talking to one of the campers. / She asks the camper, "Do you want to go to heaven?" The camper looks up at her and says, "No ma' m". The pastor is surprised, and she asks, "You mean you really - DON'T - want to go to heaven - when you die?"
"Oh", the camper says, "When I die - - oh sure then - - - - I thought you were getting a group together - to go now".
The end is NOT something - people usually find themselves - hoping for. It is at least something - we tend to push off until later.And so is facing reality. And so is - opening our eyes - to what God might be saying to us.
But I can tell you - it is something you think about - when someone you know dies too soon - which happened to me last week - when my seminary roommate died of cancer. I know that many of you know a similar experience.
To experience anything "right now" - - can be a difficult reality. But I think - it's where - this morning's texts lead us: To open our eyes - to where God is being revealed - right now. To consider what is important - and what is not.
What else - could Biblical readings about "apocalypse" - possibly mean to us on this Sunday?
As I thought about what I would say - as I stood here this morning - it was hard to imagine. I knew the scripture texts were about - - waiting. And Nancy and I had been doing some waiting. What could I say about waiting - on the first Sunday of Advent this year?
At first - to talk about a short little four week wait - leading up to Dec. 25 seemed almost like a joke. How could the waiting and longing - expressed so well in Isaiah - and which has carried people of faith for centuries - possibly be contained in four weeks?
How could four weeks of decoration preparations - possibly prepare us for the mystery of the birth of a child in a manger?
And so I considered saying that our real message is to KEEP waiting.
Wait way beyond these four weeks.
Wait until - the peace we hope and pray for - begins to come.
Wait - until the troops come home.
Wait - until all is well - and your family is secure.
Wait - until the pain in your hearts is healed - and hope is fulfilled.
But that's NOT the message. That message is turned on its' head. Like the Christmas tree - I started out describing. The message is turned upside-down.
The message is: DON'T wait. Don't you dare - - wait.
Love now - and hope now - and open yourselves -
- now - - to what God is doing - in your life.
The great reformer - Martin Luther - said it so long ago: When asked WHAT he would do - if he were told that the world were going to end tomorrow - he said: "I would plant a tree".
The word from this morning's texts to me, that I offer to you, is a word of just such - ridiculous - upside-down - - hope. May we open our eyes - to God at work in the waiting - and act now. Don't wait.
God may be found - among us - here - and now.